RogerBW's Blog

Contagion 16 August 2014

2011, dir. Steven Soderbergh, Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon: IMDb / allmovie

A contagious disease spreads across the planet; civilisation starts to fall apart.

The film didn't do very well at cinemas: $22m opening weekend, $135m lifetime worldwide, on a $60m production budget. I suspect that may be because it was thoroughly mis-marketed; it was pitched as an kinetic action film, whereas it's much closer to a slow-burning drama.

Because the disease takes days to incubate, it's already all over the world before anyone has the slightest idea there's a problem. (This is a bit inconsistent; the first patient is infected on day one, coughing on day two, dead on day four, but quoted incubation times vary quite a bit from that.) Isolation is essentially pointless by the time anyone does anything about it, though people try it all the same.

The film feels fairly evenly split between the researchers working against the disease and various outsiders, mostly the widower of the first person we see infected. I find the former material rather more interesting, but I can see the reason for the rest.

It's a very "big" film: lots of name actors, lots of important characters spread across the various groups of people most affected by the disease. Perhaps rather too many characters, since none of the individual personal plots get anything like the development they could really use. What's worse, the excellent Marion Cotillard is unfortunately sidelined (and absent from the screen) for much of the middle of the film in spite of her top billing; I'd much rather have seen her in Jennifer Ehle's role as the scientist who does eventually develop a vaccine.

I did like to see the always-recognisable Enrico Colantoni, whom I first encountered in the excellent Flashpoint TV series, in a small part as a twitchy Homeland Security agent. The fellow just lights up a screen. A surprisingly unglamorous Kate Winslet takes an early medical role, and does a decent job of it. Meanwhile Jude Law has a thankless task as the irresponsible blogger who starts false rumours of a cure, and thereby indirectly causes much of the rioting and looting that occur in the later days. It's a shame we don't get any sort of resolution to his story, making it thoroughly pointless in the end; he's clearly learned nothing from his experiences, and this section could easily have been excised to give more time to the interesting stories. (Reminds me a bit of the similar part in The Core.)

The film is relatively free of the usual Soderbergh arty touches, though tricks with colour and film style get heavily used, and a sequence involving the viewing of casino security footage is clearly meant to make us think it's terribly clever (though it works reasonably well anyway). The postscript, a flashback to the initial infection, is the only bit that really breaks the overall visual mood.

There are really two main ideas here: how vulnerable we are to contagion (lots of ominous shots of doorknobs, shared glasses, and so on) and how much effort is needed to confront the problem. The former is more emotional; the latter is more effective. This is the feel that the board game Pandemic ought to have. If only it did have that feel, I'd play it a lot more.

Now wash your hands.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:49pm on 16 August 2014

    What do you mean it didn't do very well? By your figures it took $157m on a $60m production. I'd say that's an excellent return on investment, many films make a loss.

    And as for taking days to incubate so it's all over the world before anyone has any idea, Ebola takes days to incubate and hasn't wiped out the entire planet yet despite an outbreak that's been active for all of 2014. The film's figures don't seem realistic, unless the disease has been made more infectious than any known disease.

    Recent US research into the Swine Flu outbreak shows that actually air travel only matters for the initial breakout to a new area or country. After that it travelled at a few miles per day, and the best match for that and the linked spread patterns was children going to school. Given young children are a lot more physical with each other and don't have personal space issues like adults do, this makes a lot of sense couple with developing immune systems.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 08:52pm on 16 August 2014

    The $135m is total lifetime earnings including the opening weekend, and it's generally assumed that between half and two-thirds of the gross doesn't make it back to the studio (theatres, distributors, etc.). So a film just about breaks even if it's taken 2-3x its budget; it's significantly profitable at 4x or higher.

    Children are of course a cross-vector too: an infection spreads through an office, say, then those people give to their children, then those children's schools give it to all the other parents many of whom work in different offices.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 12:40am on 17 August 2014

    In my previous jobs I almost entirely worked with people who didn't have children. In my current job quite a lot of colleagues have children, and I've noticed there's a lot more illness in the office than at previous jobs. And they're aligned roughly with the start of school terms.

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